The Demise of Turkey’s Democracy: An Open Letter to President Erdogan
Dear President Erdogan,
I have been in your country scores of times, and have developed close and friendly relations with many Turks from all walks of life; these people all took pride in the incredible progress that Turkey made under your leadership.
During your first ten years as prime minister, you transformed Turkey economically, socially and politically, and put the country on the path to greatness as an emerging regional and global power. That is why, Mr. Erdogan, it pains me to witness a once-great reformer destroying his own impressive achievements. You have chosen this destructive path at the pinnacle of your career, when you could have left a historic mark on Turkey’s future that would have rivaled even Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.
The list of your transgressions is painful, but necessary, to numerate — because their magnitude has far-reaching implications for Turkey. You had a historic opportunity to offer a model of Islamic democracy to the Arab world in the wake of the Arab Spring. Instead, you froze all political reforms and pushed Islam deeper into the country’s secular educational system by expanding religious education in learning institutions to cultivate a new, observant Islamic generation. This is not what the Turkish people aspire for; they want a true Western-style democracy with Islamic values, as was envisioned by Atatürk.
You came close to fulfilling your people’s dream when you adopted the Accession Partnership with the EU, which provided Ankara with a roadmap to make Turkey an active member of the European community, using its vast human and natural resources to make it a constructive powerhouse on the global stage. But then you abandoned European social and political ideals, destroying Turkey’s prospective EU membership, while aligning yourself with Russia.
What a noble idea it was to pursue a sound foreign-policy doctrine based on “zero problems with neighbors,” which you proudly advocated. But then you alienated both traditional and new friends of Turkey; sadly, today Turkey has problems with just about all of its neighbors — Cyprus, Greece, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Armenia and the Caucasus are all estranged from Turkey, not to mention your tense relations with the EU and the United States.
And how could you reverse course with your own Kurdish community? They are Turkish citizens — why deny them their inherent right to live in accordance with their cultural heritage? You went on a rampage to discriminate against them, as if they were your sworn enemies. No, Mr. Erdogan. When you clamp down on the legal pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party and arrest Kurdish notables and intellectuals for presumed links with the PKK, don’t expect loyalty; you are merely inviting increasing violence. You openly threaten the Iraqi Kurds with retaliation as they pursue independence, fearing your own Kurds will follow in their footsteps — yet you fail to realize that your belligerent policies are only exacerbating the separatism you fear.
You cynically claim that Turkey is a democracy, but you restrict peaceful public demonstrations, which is the hallmark of a democracy. The Taksim Square unrest, and your harsh treatment of demonstrators, only reaffirms that under your rule, Turkey has become a one-man government. Following the demonstration, you initiated a brutal campaign against those who participated in the demonstration to spread fear and suppress the people’s voice.
I know that you take pride — and for good reason — in growing the economy by nearly tripling Turkey’s GNP during your first years as prime minister. But then the poverty rate of the population in Turkey is at a high of 22.4 percent — a staggering one quarter (20 million) of the Turkish population. This is not a reality that you care to recognize; you deny it to suit your inflated ego about the wonder of Turkey’s economic miracle.
You have flagrantly abolished the State Security Courts, violated the rights of defenders and detainees, restored police brutality, and put civil and political rights in free play. Have you glanced at Human Rights Watch’s World Report documenting that — under your watch — the government has unjustifiably prosecuted alleged speech crimes and used arbitrary terrorism laws? Ordinary Turks are terrified that someone is listening to their conversations, and they can’t even tweet without fear of being investigated for their thoughts.
You emasculated the military, which has served as the custodian of a secular and democratic country — using NATO’s demand to subordinate the military to the civilian authority as an excuse. With no compunction, you discharged nearly 3,000 officers to prevent the military from ousting you from power and prosecuting you for pursuing an Islamic agenda, the way that they prosecuted three of your predecessors.
You display unbridled arrogance to the West, accusing Germany of using “Nazi measures” for their refusal to allow your supporters to hold rallies in Germany. You exhibited naked satisfaction as you watched your bodyguards shamelessly beat peaceful protesters in Washington and New York, because the concept of dissent and protest is completely alien to you, even in foreign lands.
Under the cover of fighting ISIS, you focused instead on fighting the Syrian Kurds. Several credible reports suggest that you have been buying oil from ISIS, thereby aiding them financially. There are also reports that you have aided their recruitment efforts by allowing thousands of ISIS volunteers to cross the Turkish border into Syria. You turned a blind eye to ISIS’ heinous crimes because their Islamic credentials mattered more to you than the lives of thousands of innocent people.
Corruption? It is rampant on your watch. Bribery charges have implicated municipal employees, businessmen, the sons of three of your ministers, and your own son. Rather than taking these charges seriously, you dismissed high-ranking officials who were pursuing the investigation. Your obstruction of justice was so obtrusive, that it evoked criticism even from members of your own AK Party.
You have pushed to amend the constitution to codify the president’s absolute authority, while eliminating the office of the prime minister. You have made the parliament nothing more than a rubber stamp to pass any laws that you desire to promote your personal agenda. You have betrayed the Turkish people, as you have amassed unprecedented powers while subjecting your fellow citizens to despotism and despair.
Scores of irregularities occurred during the referendum, which was held under a state of emergency. You masterfully exploited the coup attempt against you, calling it a “gift from God,” in order to rid yourself of all of your opponents, enacting a purge and spreading fear and anxiety throughout the country. Opposition members were intimidated, imprisoned, shot or beaten.
You thrive on conspiracy theories. Many government officials close to you, as well as government newspapers, accuse Fethullah Gülen, a powerful Muslim cleric, and his followers of conspiring to topple your government without any shred of evidence. You have heartlessly purged tens of thousands of innocent men and women for allegedly being supportive of the Gülen movement, denying them job opportunities and leaving their families economically desperate.
You also systematically subordinate the judiciary to your whims. You have issued decrees requiring prosecutors to receive permission for investigating ministers; this violates the new constitution. And what a dismal state of affairs, when attorneys and solicitors are terrified of defending anyone accused of being supportive of Gülen or the Kurds, because they fear retribution from your secret service.
You have made journalists one of your main targets, arresting and imprisoning them based on fabricated charges; over 100 are now languishing in jail. Reporters Without Borders ranks Turkey 154th out of 179 countries in terms of freedom of press. Scores of media outlets, including newspapers and TV stations, have been closed or taken over to promote your skewed narrative, while disregarding basic journalistic ethics.
You expressed your false piety by limiting social freedoms, banning the sale of alcohol between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., and pushing to prohibit co-ed dormitories in state universities. You believe that you have the right to impose your moral code on every home, and to control the personal space of every Turkish citizen.
Your extremism has also created a split in your own party, between those who blindly support you and those moderates who are genuinely concerned about the way you are leading the country. You maintain a veneer of democracy, but in fact, you stifle opposition political parties, making it extraordinarily difficult for them to challenge you. In May 2016, you pressed the Turkish parliament to approve a bill stripping MPs of immunity from prosecution in a blatant attempt to marginalize Kurdish MPs.
You are tenaciously instilling Ottoman images into the public consciousness, including building an extravagant 1,100-room “White Palace” as your Ottoman-esque residence. Your most recent project was the Çamlica Mosque, the now-largest mosque in Istanbul. Another mosque in Taksim Square was built with all the trimmings of the Ottoman era, which you are trying to resurrect when in fact it was rejected and vanquished a century ago.
You presume to be a man of faith, a reformer who put his country first, but you have been blinded by your thirst for power, and have betrayed your fellow countrymen. Their hopes during Turkey’s initial march to greatness, under your leadership no less, have faded away, leaving anguish and anger in their wake.
I know that you want to preside over the 100th anniversary of the new Republic of Turkey in 2023. But how do you want to be remembered? As the man who had all the power to make Turkey a shining star and a proud nation, or the ruthless Sultan who squandered Turkey’s potential to become a model of Islamic democracy with a brilliant future ahead?
You have failed your people. They must now await your departure from public life to breathe again, to think again, and, yes, to dream again.